I wanted to keep to the yoga theme with this blog. This is a review of a book that I read recently. Yoga has many therapeutic benefits. These include body awareness, emotional regulation and an overall balancing of the body system. This text looks specifically at how yoga practice can help those who have experienced traumatic events. Put simply a traumatic event can be anything that overwhelms the body and renders the person powerless to do anything about it. It might encompass a physical assualt or longstanding emotional or sexual abuse.
Childhood trauma from abuse or neglect can cause longstanding consequences reaching into adulthood. Put simply trauma survivors often don’t feel safe in their own bodies. They may experience overwhelming feelings of anxiety, anger and shame which arise unbidden and highjack day-to-day functioning.
With traumatic sensations, the body’s sense of time goes offline and so the trauma feels as though it is happening “now”. In reality what is really happening is that the sensations have their origin in the past but the individual feels as though there is something happening “now”. Many survivors know intellectually that there is nothing to fear “right now” but feel powerless because their body feels so unsafe.
Over time survivors may learn to shut down their bodily sensations so that they feel very little at all or they may chose to numb their pain through the use of alcohol or drugs.
Yoga can help survivors of trauma get in touch with the difficult sensations in their bodies. The word yoga means “union” – a union of body and breath. Typically in the West, yoga is taught in classes where participants move through a series of postures (asanas) linked to the breath.
On to the book….
This book is written for survivors, clinicians working in the trauma field and yoga teachers. David Emerson is a yoga teacher based at the Trauma Center, Justice Resource institute, Massachusetts. Elizabeth Hopper is a clinical psychologist speclializing in traumatic stress. They both have extensive experience of working with survivors of trauma and have developed a modified approach to yoga. This “trauma-sensitive yoga” has proved very helpful in teaching survivors examine and tolerate difficult bodily sensations without becoming overwhelmed. This helps to build the individual’s sense of mastery and encourages the body to recode the experience as “belonging to the past”.
The text begins with a straightforward explanation of what trauma is and how it becomes lodged in the body. It then goes to explain the principles of trauma-sensitive yoga and gives some postures which can be practiced at home or in the studio. Some of these are chair-based and suitable for all abilities.
Yoga teachers offering classes to the general population will find this book really helpful. Trauma is common and there is a strong possibility that there will be survivors amongst their class participants. It’s also possible that these individuals may not understand fully what is happening to them when they experience difficult emotions during practice. This might cause them to shut down and leave the class prematurely adding to their sense of victimhood.
Whilst work with severe trauma should be carried out by dedicated professionals, the knowledge that certain poses can trigger traumatic sensations will help teachers to be present and understanding towards their students should this happen. A calm reassuring demeanour from the teacher is hugely helpful in these circumstances. It’s important not to touch students without their permission and to allow them to modify poses and come out of them at any time.
Finally survivors will undoubtedly find some helpful information in these pages. Namely hope that things can and do get better and that healing and recovery is possible. Find a class that you like and a teacher you feel safe with and listen to what your body has to teach you.
Overcoming Trauma through Yoga can be found at: